People need a reliable food supply to thrive. Access to quality food impacts the local economy, the environment, public health, and the overall livability of neighbourhoods. By cultivating food in the limited open spaces within urban areas, cities can improve their well-being and ensure food security for their rapidly expanding population. And that is precisely what Mbekweni Eco Club aims to do with their food garden programme.

Mbekweni Eco Club is a non-profit organisation operating from Langabuya Primary School in Mbekweni, a township in Paarl. They empower learners at this school with practical skills to cultivate vegetable gardens. Furthermore, whatever the learners plant, they can harvest and take home to feed their families.

According to Nothemba Elizabeth Ndevu, the acting principal of Langabuya Primary School, the school has 1 500 enrolled learners, most of whom come from homes where parents are either unemployed or seasonal farm workers.

“The situation in some of my learners’ homes is dire. In certain households, months can pass without income, resulting in food shortages. The vegetables from this food garden assist the school feeding scheme, and most learners also take vegetables home,” she explained.

Some students at Langabuya Primary School have learned valuable lessons from assisting in the school food garden and have even started gardens at home. One such learner is 11-year-old Bulumnko Mdodana.

Enthusiasm for gardening

Bulumnko, born and raised in Mbekweni, began assisting at the school food garden in 2022. His eagerness to learn caught the attention of Vincent Nteta, co-founder of the Mbekweni Eco Club.

“Bulumnko arrives early in the morning to assist in the garden. He does what he is told and asks questions about the seeds we are planting and how to care for them. His questions assure me of the depth of his understanding, and I can see that he absorbs everything I teach him,” Vincent shared.

Though shy, Bulumnko’s face lights up when discussing the food garden.

“The first time I came to the food garden, bhut’ Vincent was planting cabbage. He taught us how to plan, and I applied everything I learned from him in my home garden,” Bulumnko enthused.

“My parents work on farms, and sometimes there is no money for food. I wanted to learn as much as possible about gardening to help when there is a shortage,” he added.

A place of learning

According to Vincent, the Mbekweni Eco Club team refers to themselves as an outdoor laboratory because their work allows learners to comprehend the wonders of the natural world. It provides hands-on experiences in soil health, water conservation, biodiversity, and ecosystems. Through observation and experimentation, learners develop a deeper appreciation for the environment and a sense of environmental stewardship.

“Many learners do not understand where vegetables come from beyond buying them at supermarkets. By involving them in the entire process, we expand their minds to different possibilities, and they become more aware of their environment,” Vincent explained.

Principal Ndevu echoes these sentiments and highlights how they have added an extra school period to practically allow learners to learn in nature.

“Agriculture used to be part of our syllabus but was removed. Having the Mbekweni Eco Club food garden on our premises allows the school to reintroduce the importance of agriculture to our learners,” she concluded.